China's Sentimental Journey Back to Mao

Chongqing, a megalopolis best known for its industrial might and raw capitalism—think the Chicago of China—is fondly recalling its socialist past.

A local cable channel has just started running Mao-era revolutionary film epics with names like Liberation of the Greater Southwest and Marching Forward for the New China. Residents are being encouraged to sing "red" songs and send text messages promoting collectivist values. These songs sport catchy titles like Ode to the Motherland and Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China. The text messages are upbeat and don't echo the more provocative sentiments of Mao Zedong (remember "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"?). An excerpt from a recently coined online slogan: "It is difficult to work all day, so don't forget to wear extra in this cold weather!"

Do the Chinese of Chongqing really want to give up their Ford Fiestas and bootleg iPhones for a return to the Maoist era? "Ordinary Chinese and particularly those of lower incomes have a high appreciation for the Mao regime," says Li Shi, an economist at Beijing Normal University. "They remember a more equal society."

The red culture campaign isn't just a remembrance of things past. Bo Xilai, Chongqing's Party Secretary and China's former Commerce Minister, has launched this movement with a goal, say political analysts, to beef up his revolutionary bona fides with China's elder statesmen and broaden his appeal to ordinary Chinese who feel bruised by 30-plus years of modernization. If he succeeds, he may land a key seat in China's next government, which takes power shortly after the Communist Party Congress in the fall of 2012. "It's the season to determine the precise positions of the new leaders," says China strategist Robert L. Kuhn, author of How China's Leaders Think. "The ultimate power is on the Politburo Standing Committee—the nine slots at the top."

Bo, 61, is one of roughly 15 candidates vying for these positions, says Cheng Li, a political scientist who studies Chinese leadership politics for the Brookings Institution in Washington. Li says that while officially the standing committee is chosen by the 300-plus members of the Central Committee, in reality the current Standing Committee consults with a few retired political heavyweights before picking their successors behind closed doors.

What has changed in the last three or four years is the importance of public opinion in choosing the final candidates, say Brookings' Li and other analysts. "Beijing cannot appoint people that the public won't support. The storm of protest on the Internet would be embarrassing," says Kuhn.

The positions of Party Secretary/President (held by the same person) and Premier are almost certain to go to 57-year-old Vice-President Xi Jinping and 55-year-old Executive Vice-Premier Li Keqiang. Bo's prospect of landing one of the remaining jobs, perhaps as top official in charge of propaganda, look stronger since Xi voiced support for Bo's leadership of Chongqing during a Dec. 6-8 visit, according to Brookings' Li.

China's wannabe leaders can be divided into two camps. One faction is made up of those officials who rose to power through the Communist Youth League. President Hu Jintao hails from this group and so supports fellow League members such as Li Keqiang, says Li of Brookings. The second camp, which includes Bo and Xi Jinping, are the princelings, the well-connected children of former revolutionary leaders.

Princelings have a special need to burnish their red credentials. "Some people are critical of the princelings" and see them as using their positions to amass power and wealth, says Li. "Bo wants to send the message that princelings are the most reliable people to maintain Communist rule."

The campaign clearly strikes a chord in Chongqing. The older generations recall a tougher yet in some ways more secure era, says Zhang Jiedong, a 26-year-old recent graduate of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing. There was less stress; income was guaranteed and competition for status symbols was almost nonexistent. Younger people are also interested in this period in China's history. Bo's crackdown on organized crime and corruption in Chongqing has been very popular. Says Zhang: "As long as the people are happy, that is most important."

The bottom line: Nostalgia for the simpler comradeship of post-1949 China is taking off. An ambitious high party offical, Bo Xilai, is partly responsible.

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